I remember as a child when all my friends entered the phase of
wanting to be airline pilots when they grew up. I was right there
alongside them. We had our cast steel models of Boeing 707s
(from back in the day when the airlines gave them out to kids for
free) and tremendously enjoyed running around waving them in the
air and making Vroooom noises. But I veered off a bit
after my parents wangled a tour of the control tower at the
airport. The ground controllers in the top glass-enclosed
floor were pretty cool, but then seeing the air traffic controllers
in front of their scopes, ordering unseen and unknown pilots to
turn their multi-million dollar machines this way and that: I was
hooked. The others eventually
went their separate ways, none of them turning out to be a pilot.
I think the closest any of them came was Carlos Fuentes, who's a
travel agent now; he does fly a lot. But my course was set, and
led me to college and then the Navy, where I was inducted into the
secret society of ATC.
After initial training, I spent 12 months sitting next to a
succession of veterans
before I talked my first Herc to a safe landing at
Montauk AFB, and then it was mostly smooth sailing from there.
I got myself into a couple of situations during my seven
years in the Navy, and had two actual deals — one
of which was on 9/11, and there were several
around the country that day — about average, I think.
But I'm not the type to go career, and after my discharge
I settled in Santa Barbara. I was ready
for a small town and a small airport, or so I thought. But after two
years working at SBA, and not having found anything to tie me down,
I jumped at the chance when I heard of an opening at TRACON in
That move to Phoenix was the best thing I ever did in my life. Of
course it didn't seem so when they had more than 20 planes stacked
for landing due to a closed runway — a Cessna Citation had
gotten in the way of a taxiing A320 — and we
were a good hour late getting on the ground. I was fuming with the rest
of the passengers while we waited, and thankful that my profession
hadn't come up as a topic during in-flight chitchat; for some
unfathomable reason, passengers blame ATC for these things. In the
terminal, I decided I'd hang out in the bar for a while, since
there was no one to meet me and I had no place I needed to be, and
I could use a cooling off period. And there she was, tending bar.
Pretty, to be sure, though perhaps
not so much so as to turn my
head if we passed each other on the sidewalk. Perhaps something in
her voice had triggered something in me, though she hadn't yet
come to my end of the bar and her words with the other customers
were not overly loud. Oh, who knows what causes these things,
anyway? For all I know, the considerate way she wiped the bar
before setting the customer's drink before him was what caught
my attention. All I know is, when she made her way down to me
and asked what I'd like, I made no attempt to conceal my attraction.
The fact that the whiskey sour she brought me was the best I
ever had not only helped erase the last vestiges of the
foul mood I'd been in, but also provided a starting point
for conversation. A conversation so pleasant, even with the
punctuation of her attending to other customers, that it caused
me to have a second and third drink after the first one I'd
intended; I was still there at one o'clock in the morning when
she got off work, and she insisted on taking me to a nice motel
well away from the airport's interchangeable sleeping machines.
I had a week before I started at TRACON. All my belongings had
been shipped ahead and were in a warehouse somewhere. I wasn't
really picky, but I figured I'd take a few days looking around
for a nice apartment. Monica had the next two days off and suggested
that she take me around to a couple of places, and show me the
city at the same time. It sounded good to me. I thanked her and
she said she'd be by at about noon, and we could get started.
"Oh, one thing: just because I work in an airport doesn't
mean I only go out with other people who work in aviation. And
I'm not impressed by, for example, pilots who pepper their
conversations with aeronautical references. Just lettin' you
"Thanks for the warning," I laughed. "I'll keep it in mind. I
promise you'll never hear the word blip out of me! I'll
see you tomorrow."
We had a very pleasant couple of days, and after we got to know
each other somewhat, I moved into a comfortable, homey apartment
that I never would have found on my own. It was about three miles
from Monica's, and about half way between the airport and the
Center. The day after I signed the lease, the moving company
delivered my furniture with no problems, and I slipped right in.
The neighbors were friendly, and I felt almost as though I had
lived there for years.
* * *
The next Saturday morning, I was up early and riding the extensive
bike path network. The paths meandered and I didn't pay
too much attention to where they took me. Though I had no real idea where
I was, or even how far from home as the crow flies, I knew I could
get back. Passing a small neighborhood park, I stopped to pet the
beautiful greyhound that was approaching to grab the tennis ball that
had landed near me. Unlike most greyhounds, this one wasn't totally
timid and gladly accepted my greeting. While I was shaking her hand,
a pair of sneakers entered my view, and I heard "Hey,
you must be pretty special. She doesn't usually take to strangers
quickly." Even before I looked up, I recognized the voice. "Monica!"
We both made inane comments about
the improbability of meeting.
Turns out we were only about two blocks from her apartment. "Your
dog is great! What's her name?" "Crusoe. I adopted her when the
racers didn't want her anymore." "Wow, I had an ex-racer once, too.
Scylla. She was with me only about three years, unfortunately. She
was a great dog." After playing with Crusoe for another hour, I
walked them back home. Monica and I talked while I helped her
rearrange her furniture, which she said she'd been wanting to do for
a while, and before we knew it, it was time for lunch.
I've never been much of a cook; I was amazed when twenty minutes
later we sat down on the grass with broiled tuna sandwiches with
a mild horseradish sauce, spinach salad with cranberries and
slivered almonds, and a chilled pinot grigio.
I was having a great time with her, and I marvelled at my luck
in having met her. It wasn't the first time, nor the last.
* * *
Almost every weekend, I would investigate a house or two that was
for sale, sometimes accompanied by Monica. Eight months after
arriving in Phoenix, I stumbled upon a great house, being sold in
distress. I knew it would be sold very quickly, but I happened
to be the first to see it. On the spot, I borrowed the agent's
wireless laptop and arranged for a twenty thousand dollar earnest
to be transferred to her firm. Then I told the agent I'd be back in
an hour, and sped to Monica's, calling her on the way and telling
her to be ready to come with me, while
refusing to tell her what
She was waiting for me when I pulled up in front of her apartment,
and swung into the passenger side of the Jeep before it even came
to a full stop. I kept it rolling slowly and gave a loud whistle.
"Crusoe! Here, girl!" Crusoe shimmied under the fence, trotted after
the Jeep and leapt into the back, and then into Monica's lap. We
both laughed, and Monica tried once more to get me to tell her
what was up, but I held fast.
When I pulled into the driveway, passing the For Sale sign at
its foot, she gasped and got the idea. "Are you buying this house?"
"I think so. I hope so." The agent had had to leave for another
appointment, but there was a note on the door telling me to go
ahead and look around, and that she'd be back soon.
"It's incredible!," she said even before fully entering the
living room from the foyer. She knelt on one of the Navajo rugs
and ran her fingers across the cool stone floor. Then she jumped
to her feet like a schoolgirl and ran off; I followed quickly.
The master bedroom, with the skylight in the ceiling and the
heating elements in the tile floor met with her audible approval;
the large bathroom, with the spacious glass-enclosed shower and
the oval bathtub, with plenty of room for two and appearing to
meld right into the floor and the sill under the nearly full-height
tinted window overlooking the half acre back yard, put a gleam
into her eye.
We sat on the edge of the tub, and enjoyed the view of Crusoe
exploring. With perhaps the biggest grin I'd ever seen on her face,
Monica was emphatic: "This is the perfect house for you!" I had
to admit, I'd never seen one I liked better. "I think so too —
except for one thing: I don't think I could live in it without you.
I'm asking you to share this house with me; I'm asking you to share
your life with me as I want to share mine with you…." I slid
back the cover concealing the water jet controls, and withdrew a
silver ring bearing a small sapphire, so deep blue that you
might think the entire universe could be swallowed up in it; it
matched her eyes. I held it out to her. "Please
marry me, Monica, and make my life complete." "I will," she whispered,
then "Oh yes, yes" louder. We threw ourselves into a hug that we
just couldn't end. Off in the back yard, a dog barked. In the doorway,
a real estate agent softly but ostentatiously cleared her throat.
I looked around and before she could utter a word, I
made her day.
"I'll take it!"
I've been wandering around the house all day this morning while Monica
is out with some friends. Thirty six years of memories. Starting from
the bathroom where I can still see in my mind her acceptance of my
marriage proposal, even while my eyes look out and see the small plot
where Crusoe is buried, and beside her, Friday, the greyhound we got to keep
Crusoe company as soon as we moved in; next to them, Brobdingnag the
Doberman and Lilliput, the Jack Russell terrier. After
we lost Crusoe, we hadn't wanted to get another dog for several years, but
finally we both knew we had to.
On to the dining room, which had started out as an intimate nook for
us to dine together, but had later accepted the big oak table when Alison
and the twins were growing up. The kids were long out of the house now, and
I'd considered reverting back to the minimal arrangement, but I think Monica
and I would both see it as perhaps a rejection of them. And of course, we
did still have occasional use for it at holidays and when
we had friends over.
The kitchen, usually Monica's demesnes, but which had taken the brunt of
the damage when she'd been in her Chinese cooking phase, and blew up
a Peking duck. We'd decided to completely remodel it after that episode.
So many memories.
The good ones that brought a pleasant glow, the bad ones
that were always so trying at the time, but which now I see as just as much
a part of our story together and which themselves have their good sides: the
support we gave each other when we needed it, the strengthening and renewal
of our marriage as we got through them. But now, one o'clock was almost
upon me and I had to get going. I called for an autocab and strode resolutely
down to the street.
* * *
"Okay, Phil, just give me a number."
Phil stopped fiddling with the stethescope hanging around his neck, laid
it on the desk, and sipped from the water glass. "A month's pretty much
guaranteed, but I'd be very surprised if you got three."
I'd pretty much steeled myself for the worst, but it
still took a few
seconds before I could chuckle and utter what would have to pass for humor:
"Can we set up a payment plan?" There was still an awkward silence, so
I extended my hand and took my leave of the old friend who had delivered
my children into the world and would soon stand by helpless while I left it.
On the way home, I stopped by the bank and got some papers from the
safe deposit box. Over the next hour I verified that my will was in
order, and started on the first of several letters I'd have to write.
I didn't get far into it before I had to stop and let the facts of
my approaching end sink in.
I'm afraid I nodded off, because the next thing I knew, Monica was
gently shaking my shoulder. I opened my eyes to see a look of concern on
her face, her other hand resting on the desk; she seemed to be waiting for
me to speak first.
"Honey … we've got a situtation."
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